Question: of the 400+ books that Paul Elder published, which one sold the most copies?
The surprising answer is Wallace Irwin’s Love Sonnets of a Hoodlum. First published in 1901, this slim volume of jaunty verse remained in print at least through 1907. Fellow San Francisco humorist Gelett Burgess (of “Purple Cow” fame) added a mock scholarly introduction.
Wallace Irwin (1875-1959) was a well-known humorist in the early 1900s. He attended Stanford University where he edited two humor magazines, but was expelled for writing satirical poetry about the faculty. Soon after, Irwin was hired as a writer by the Hearst Corporation. (Getting kicked out of a university seems to have been a requirement for local humorists: Gelett Burgess was fired by UC Berkeley after pulling down a statue of Henry Cogswell. Burgess clearly saw a kindred soul in Irwin.)
Irwin’s humor has not aged well. In Love Sonnets of a Hoodlum, our hoodlum hero fancies a lady and attempts to win her favor, but neither Irwin’s slang nor his references will be familiar to today’s readers.
Most disturbing to modern sensibilities, however, is Irwin’s racial humor. In Sonnet II below, he caricatures both Italians (“Dago”) and Jews (“Cohenstein”). More was to come: in 1907 Irwin began a long serial for Colliers magazine purporting to be the letters of a 35-year-old Japanese “boy,” going so far as to call the fourth volume Yellow Peril, and posing for the cover photograph himself in yellow makeup.
Irwin wrote many other works, including the 1935 novel The Julius Caesar Murder Case, which is generally credited as the first mystery novel set in antiquity.